Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Delany, Samuel R

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(1942-    ) US writer and critic, from 1988 Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His significance as an sf writer is very great; such a reputation seemed assured from the moment his first publication – The Jewels of Aptor (1962 dos; original text 1968; rev 1971 UK) – appeared, even though its initial release had been savagely cut. Jewels may be comparatively crude, but in its linguistic exuberance, its Baroque turns of plot, and the mythopoeisis that consistently underlies (> Underliers) both character and plot, it clearly prefigured the great sf novels of SRD's early maturity. In these SRD's increasing use of Childe-like protagonists haunted by Quests gave a further fantasy tonality to novels whose arguments remained firmly sf-based.

Between those books and the late 1970s, when he began to publish fantasy, SRD became deeply involved in attempts to assimilate late-20th-century literary theories to sf, in particular applying various forms of semiotic analysis to its language and themes. Sf novels like Triton (1976), and the fantasy tales which soon followed, work (almost, at times, it seems only work) as articulate explorations of theory; indeed, most incorporate critical appendices by virtue of which the fictional narratives explode outwards into dialogic encounters with the discourse that subtends, explains, confronts and sometimes eviscerates them. SRD's separately published work in literary theory appears in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (coll 1977), The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale by Thomas M. Disch – "Angouleme" (1978), Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (coll 1984), The Motion of Light on Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village 1957-1965 (1988; exp vt The Motion of Light on Water: East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing 1960-1965, with The Column at the Market's Edge 1990 UK), Wagner/Artaud: A Play of 19th and 20th Century Critical Fictions (1988 chap), The Straits of Messina (coll 1989) – which mostly assembles comments on his own work, originally published as by K Leslie Steiner – and Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (coll 1994).

With the exception of two pornographic novels – The Tides of Lust (1973; rev vt Equinox 1994) and Hogg (1995) – SRD's fantasy is restricted to the Nevèrÿon sequence: Tales of Nevèrÿon (coll of linked stories 1979), Neveryóna, or The Tale of Signs and Cities (1983), Flight From Nevèrÿon (coll of linked stories 1985; rev 1989 UK) and The Bridge of Lost Desire (coll of linked stories 1987; rev vt Return to Nevèrÿon 1989 UK). Set in a Land-of-Fable prehistoric Mediterranean and depicting a time when barbarian cultures are beginning complexly to evolve the signs and physical accomplishments of civilization, the sequence both presents the kind of Story which tends to adhere to such venues – Gorgik the barbarian, the main protagonist, undergoes various Heroic-Fantasy ordeals – and subjects those stories to the intense irradiating glare and exposé of SRD's critical armamentarium. In the same way that the Nevèrÿon world undergoes radical transformation, so the stories that conventionally tell us of that world must also become, as it were, urbanized: they must unpack their unconscious burdens, must become self-conscious and alienated, must become civil even though inflammatory.

In the first volume, "The Tale of Gorgik" follows Gorgik's slow hegira from ignorant barbarism through a complexly ambivalent and fetishized period of slavery into an understanding of the power (of words, of deeds, of change). A further story, "The Tale of Old Venn", incorporates a teller of stories that incorporate various lessons about change and the meaning of change. "The Tale of Small Sarg" introduces Dragons and uses the protagonist's experience of being Gorgik's slave and lover to examine Sex and power in all its aspects (eventually, Gorgik will become the Liberator who ends slavery in the land). In Neveryóna, a young woman undergoes a Rite of Passage analogous to Gorgik's, and achieves emancipation through art. The last volume is darkened by an extraordinarily effective interplay between the imagined world, which is suffering from a plague, and the consequences of the AIDS epidemic in SRD's own New York. In the end, however, the last volume dives backwards into the heart of the sequence, without terminating any Story within it. The circling self-reflexivities of the text have no logical terminus.

One additional fantasy tale, They Fly at Çiron (1993), contains SRD's mutation and expansion of a story written in 1962 and published in F&SF in 1971, in collaboration with James Sallis; although its various narrative strands are more than competent, possibly – in describing three ideal ways of life, and locating them in three separate communities, after the fashion of mid-career Ursula K Le Guin – he may have rendered the novel as a whole fatally abstract.

Whether or not SRD's major fictions of the past 20 years, the Nevèrÿon books, are fantasy or a cauterizing simulacrum of fantasy matters little. The fascination of SRD's work, here and elsewhere, lies in the sense (and the heat) generated when Story mates with discourse. [JC]

other works: Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love (1979); The Mad Man (1994), associational; Atlantis: Three Tales (coll 1995), autobiographical fictions.

further reading: The Delany Intersection (1978) by George Edgar Slusser; Worlds Out of Words: The SF Novels of Samuel R. Delany (1979) by Douglas Barbour; Samuel R. Delany: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980) by M W Peplov and R S Bravard; Samuel R. Delany (1982) by Jane Branahan Weedman; Samuel R. Delany (1985) by Seth McEvoy.

Samuel Ray Delany


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.